Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Ever heard of “native advertising”? Well, you should. It’s when newspapers or websites – like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times – plant advertisements disguised as journalism right alongside real news articles. So it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between what’s real and what’s made up. Well, this week, I’m looking at movies that cross the line between fiction and reality. There’s a comedy from the UK about actors on a trip who play themselves, a comedy from Ireland about a musician who hides his face, and a documentary about a bank robber who inspired a movie.
Frank Dir: Leonard Abrahamson (based on an article by Jon Ronson)
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a ginger-haired nerd in his twenties who still lives with his parents. He lives in a seaside English town and works at a boring desk job. But he imagines himself as a successful singer-songwriter and keyboardist. He spends his free time recording feeble, unfinished verses on his computer… He’s of the Twitter generation and can’t think longer than 140 characters. But one day he witnesses an attempted suicide on a beach by an actual deranged musician – a keyboardist. And just because Jon is in the wrong place at the right time he is asked, spontaneously, to take his place at a gig.
The show is a disaster. He’s terrible, the band can’t play, and the performance generates an on-stage fight. But Jon is mesmerized by the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank is a charismatic man, with huge blue eyes, neat black hair and enigmatic features. He has a friendly, enthusiastic style that everyone likes. He’s everything Jon would want to be.
The thing is, his features are enigmatic because they never change. His big blue eyes are entrancing because they are enormous. In fact, Frank wears a gigantic, painted papier-mache globe over his real head. What does his face look like? Nobody knows. He never takes it off and eats his food through a straw.
John invited to join them in a cabin in the woods to record an album. But he soon discovers this group is a strange bunch. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays the Theramin ad looks like a smouldering heroin addict, with her pale skin and art-school hair. She’s outright hostile to John. She thinks he’s the Yoko Ono, tearing the group apart. The rest of them include a sneering Frenchman, a burnt-out American, and others, who come and go. Days turns to weeks, then months. They’re broke. Will they ever finish it? But without telling the others, John posts clips on youtube and reports their progress on Twitter. Soon they have a solid fanbase without ever performing beyond the cabin. Newfound success draws them to SXSW in Texas. Will they have a hit? Will the people adore them? And will Frank ever take off his fake head?
Frank is a great movie, strange quirky and funny. It’s a new look at sex and fame and rock and roll. As Frank, Fassbender is a combination Jim Morrison and Mr Dressup, with his music morphing from prog rock to silly electric piano pop. Maggie Gyllenhall is terrific as the brooding musician and love interest and Gleeson is a new Michael Cera. This is a good movie to watch.
The Trip to Italy Dir: Michael Winterbottom
Steve Coogan is an English movie actor, at a slow point in his career. So he sets out with his travel companion, Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, for a drive down the coast of Italy. You see, they’ve been hired to relax at exclusive resorts, putter around on yachts, and enjoy meals at 3-star restaurants. All they have to do is comment on the experience. And along the way they retrace the steps places visited centuries earlier by British poets (and early tourists) Keats, Shelley and Byron. Steve is divorced with a teenaged son and considers himself a bit of a womanizer, while Rob is happily married with two small children, who he talks to by phone each day. But who will pick up the most beautiful women for casual sex? This is a sequel to an almost identical movie set in England a few years back.
This sounds awful and boring as hell, right? No! it’s absolutely hilarious. Basically, the two actors play exaggerated, fictional version of themselves, while, the rest of the cast – the photographer, tour guide, family members – are all other actors cast in the roles. Aside from views of gorgeous scenery and delicious looking cooking scenes for foodies, what this movie is really about is two guys in a car, singing along to songs from the 90s by Alanis Morisette. And they re-enact entire scenes from The Godfather, Part II (another sequel), reciting every line in the voices of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Arguing about who was the best James Bond. Commenting about people at the next table at a restaurant in Rome or amongst the ruins of Pompeii. Not every joke hits the mark – I’m at a loss when it comes to comments about, say, European sportscasters – but there’s a cumulative effect, with all the jokes, comments, plays on words, competitive punning and imitations of Michael Caine, each building on the one before, until it’s just wipe-the-tears-from-your-eyes hilarious. It’s a particular style of improvized, spoken humour. There’s no pratfalls, no racial jokes, no gross-outs, no silly comments on “those crazy foreigners”, no stand-up comedy humour that depends on a punchline… It’s just two guys engaging in caustically funny conversations. It’s just great.
And finally, I want to recommend The Dog, a great documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. It’s the true story of folk hero / criminal John Wojtowicz. A self-described pervert, John is the guy who robbed a bank and took hostages in Manhattan in the early 1970s to pay for his girlfriend’s sex change. They were soon surrounded by cops but he entranced the crowd – and the news media — by talking to them, to his mom, and to his wife Carmen. It’s one of the earliest TV as-it-happens news stories, with a twist. It inspired Dog Day Afternoon, but his story is even wilder, encompassing his bisexuality and his early role in queer politics. This funny-looking guy is an amazing, absurd character, filled with Brooklyn bravado. And his story is amazing and well-worth seeing.
Frank, The Trip To Italy and The Dog all open today in Toronto: check your local listings for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com